Tag Archives: 2016 Elections

Bread, Salt and Water

All I had on my dining room table this New Year’s Eve (Photo: Ilse Munro)

One thing I learned early on was that you see in the new year properly or suffer the consequences. Even though we arrived in the United States as Latvian refugees who had lost everything in World War II, soon there was caviar and vodka on the table on New Year’s Eve. And on New Year’s Day, there was a remarkable dish garnished with dill, lavished with Hollandaise sauce and washed down with white wine: a poached fish with head, tail and skin intact but bones and flesh removed, the later turned into forcemeat that—together with hardboiled eggs and other artistically arranged items that looked lovely when sliced—was reintroduced into the unscathed skin.

Alas, more was involved than mere food and drink. The scales from the fish were rinsed clean, dried in the oven and, apportioned by the number of people present, wrapped in parchment and given to each to put in a pocket. Then silver coins were handed out to each to put in a shoe. This belt-and-suspenders approach increased the certainty that there would be abundant wealth in the coming year. At least according to my maternal grandmother, who had once been a businesswoman and was the most financially savvy among us. Even  with this, she would warn, good luck could elude us if the first to cross our threshold was anyone other than a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. Even my father, who fit the bill but was disqualified, had his own two cents to add: as soon as the clock struck twelve, we had to head outside to toast the entire world. And, no matter how wasted we were or how deep the snow might be, take a long walk after breakfast.

I suppose I could have scrapped all that when I left home and distanced myself from the Latvian-American community. Instead, I not only dutifully performed every ritual and internalized every superstition but also added a few of my own. The latter started simply enough with a decision to dispense with the American custom of making, then breaking New Year’s resolutions. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to get my life in order before the old year ends so that I could start the new one with a clean slate? My response to something so seemingly sensible soon turned into a compulsion as compelling as any that came from my ancestors. Every bill had to be paid, every room—closets and cupboards included—had to be cleaned, every obligation had to be met. Not to mention shopping for liquor and fish and washing and drying those damn fish scales.

By the time, decades later, that my father had died and my mother and her demanding English Springer Spaniel had moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me—while I was making the 60-mile DC commute, working 16-hour days and flying cross-country on business trips—I sought simplification. Not at first, of course. She loved the holidays as much I did, which only motivated me to do more. But as the year that she turned 90 drew to a close, I was dragging so badly that the best that I could do was haul home a tree and prop it up in a corner, where it stood for days before I could bring myself to set it up and decorate it. Come Christmas Eve—when Latvians hold their main celebration—everything looked festive, but it then took another supreme effort to start New Year’s preparations.

Perhaps I sensed that this would be our last New Year’s Eve together. Perhaps she sensed it, too. At any rate, she felt the need to lighten my load. All those things that we do, she confessed, are nice but not that necessary. All that really matters is that there is bread, salt and water on the table by midnight. With those three essentials, any resourceful person can survive—and even thrive—in the coming year. Of course, I managed to do all the unnecessary things that I had done before. But, from then on, every year but one, an arrangement of bread, salt and water occupied a prominent place on the table. Particularly the last few years, when it became impossible to ignore the role that hunger plays in the United States and also in the global refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II, when my family and I were among the more than 50 million displaced persons.

The exception was the one time in my life when, for want of better words, I thought: fuck it. Without doing a damn thing, I went to bed early instead of seeing in 2015. Within weeks, I was hospitalized and nearly died. The reason, I knew, had nothing to do with my singular lapse. In retrospect, my health had been deteriorating throughout 2014 and causing considerable lethargy. But, when it came time to ring in 2016, I did not dare take chances. I made absolutely sure that I would be awake and that, at the least, there would be bread, salt and water on the table. And since 2016 was generally acknowledged to rank among the worst years ever and 2017, what with the political situation as it was and all, was unlikely to be much better, I decided not to tempt fate and do substantially more than the minimal.

So, I re-stocked my liquor cabinet and wine bin. Then headed for the fish store where I was once instantly recognized as the fish-scale lady. Only this time, no one remembered me. And I opted for red snapper instead of rockfish, which my late mother liked to call “rocket fish” in honor of my NASA consulting work. But did manage to pick up some caviar, which she would have wanted, as well as a dessert that, in deference to her cravings, had to included some form of chocolate. By the final countdown, all my bills were paid—easy now that everything is automated—and there was bread, salt and water on the table. And other items reserved for after midnight and the following day. And there was one of the Kennedy half dollars that my maternal grandmother collected in my shoe and a packet of fish scales in my pocket and more scales in a pretty silver box on the table. The house, apart from the dining room, was mainly a mess as were other aspects of my life, but somehow now it did not matter.

I lit candles, including one that I placed in the window for all my distant and departed family members and friends. Then, at the proper time, walked out onto my front porch and raised a glass to 2017. It was unseasonably warm but cloudy, so I could not see either fireworks or stars as I crossed the street to stand on my riverbank. And I was all alone—my neighbors were celebrating elsewhere—so there was no one to grab for a kiss. In fact, if any tall, dark, handsome man were to cross my threshold in the new year, it would likely be an installer from Best Buy, since several major appliances had recently died. But when I returned inside for caviar and cake, everything suddenly looked so lovely. I was strangely satisfied with my imperfect effort and even allowed myself a moment of irrational optimism.

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In addition to the basics of bread, salt and water, necessities for welcoming the new year were expanded to include dried fish scales in a silver box and a Kennedy half dollar as well as dry white wine, black caviar on ice and chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Note: If you have European, British or Middle Eastern roots, you might want to learn about variants of welcome rituals based on bread and salt. And if you then want to do something that is more than merely symbolic, might want to send New Year’s greetings to family and friends through the International Rescue Committee, which lets you make gifts that help refugees in their name, which is what I also did this on New Year’s Eve.

Before The Storms Begin

A refugee boat organised by the Latvian Central Council on the way to the island of Gotland. (Source: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.)

I was born toward the end of August, when—despite the summery weather—a few leaves had already turned red or gold. A month or so later, my father, my mother, her mother and I were forced to flee my birthplace, Valmiera, which the invading Soviet Army subsequently burned to the ground. We kept going—first by car, then by ship and, finally, by train—until we reached the Austrian Alps, where we found refuge. Some five years later, we crossed the Atlantic Ocean during a mid-October hurricane to resettle in the United States. So, from the start, autumn has been a time of great urgency and gratitude for me.

This was put into words when I learned “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” at the first elementary school that I attended in the States:

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!

The urgency was expressed in the “safely gathered in” part, which I took to mean everything that had to be done before winter arrived. If we did not have to harvest crops, there was produce to be put up and a pantry to be stocked. And leaves to be raked into piles and burned. And storm windows to be installed and heating oil to be delivered and coats and hats and mittens and boots to be bought. The gratitude was expressed in the “God . . . doth provide” part, though—skeptical of the existence of a Beneficent Being even then—I unconsciously replaced Him with my resourceful parents and grandmother and the occasional kind stranger. Since such adults, even in Austria, managed to do what must be done, I was left to look for signs of snow. Each year, I selected one dry leaf on one all but bare branch and willed it to drop, believing that then sparkly flakes would fall.

Last September, I felt the same urgency, but not the same gratitude. The worst refugee crisis since the one that I had experienced was underway. While the good people of Lesbos and the like struggled to save those who came to their shores in overcrowded dinghies and others in northern countries such as Austria were welcoming, a remarkable number of Latvians and Latvian-Americans remained indifferent or even hostile. Since I saw myself in the faces of uprooted Syrian children and my parents and grandmother in the arms that held them, I experienced their abandonment. Not knowing what to do, I posted a piece, “Debt of Honor,” urging former Latvian refugees like me as well as their progeny to show more support. And was pleased when it  received thousands of views and started some spirited discussions. And was crushed when it ultimately failed to convince anyone not in basic agreement with me. I could not understand how the remainder could be so incapable of empathy, and they could not understand how I could say what I did. Over and over, they told me in various ways,”You don’t understand. It’s not at all the same.”

This September, I entertained the possibility that the majority view might have merit. This came about while I was searching for images of Latvian refugees crossing the Baltic Sea in woefully inadequate contraptions comparable to those now used for Mediterranean Sea crossings. Since over 3770 making the Mediterranean crossing died doing so in 2015 alone, I thought that there would be a compelling parallel to draw. I learned, instead, that only a few thousand Latvian refugees had fled in this manner. Most of us, mainly members of the cultural, political and economic elite, were evacuated in seaworthy ships under the protection of the retreating German Army. Just how different this was is evident, for instance, in videos of well-dressed women and children carrying bouquets of flowers. And stories from people such as my father, who was allowed to bring his red sports car onboard, even though it was subsequently confiscate in Danzig.

The more I thought about the implications of this difference, the more others came to mind. Soon, I could completely see why former Latvian refugees and following generations might not readily relate to Syrian refugees. And certainly not to those, say, who fled Somalia. But that did not explain why I felt such kinship. I could not believe that I was nothing more than a bleeding heart, particularly since I am something of a hard-ass. After careful analysis, I concluded that I could be characterized not only as hard-assed but also as imaginative. Both attributes have come in handy in my scientific and technical work as well as fiction writing, But the latter has an additional benefit. As novelist Ian McEwan noted when calling the September 11 attacks a “failure of the imagination,” “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

This failure of the imagination, of course, is not limited to terrorists or those with whom I share some history. It is a problem of global proportions. People on either side of any divide—racial, cultural, political or spiritual—seem more ready than ever to erect barriers against each other and, as though that was not bad enough, to seek out others with the intent of changing or eradicating them. Simultaneously, it seems that the forces throwing many opposites together—say, the displacement and migration caused by armed conflict, climate change and economic hardship—have never been greater. I cannot see this ending well unless we, as individuals and groups, become far more imaginative. And soon since winter is on the way.

We could start now. Look at the photograph below, where refugees disembark a small boat against the backdrop of storm clouds and an angry sea. Then pick out a person and imagine how he or she feels. (My choice is the toddler with the flimsy blanket held by the man in a short-sleeved shirt.) Then imagine what you would do. (I would get her a down parka and and insulated boots. And some form of shelter. And water and food, of course. And do the same for the man since she cannot survive without an adult to care for her.) Then play the video below showing schoolchildren and teachers performing for audience members. Imagine that most are from the nation where you live and a few years have passed and that the person that you selected is now among them, safe and warm. (At this point, there is little left for me to imagine. I once was that refugee girl singing an English hymn in an American school, waiting for that dry leaf to fall.)

 

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Refugees arrive at Lesbos on 14 October 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a dinghy. (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP / Getty Images)


“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Hope PR School Program 2013.

Note: Last autumn, when I was looking for something more tangible than words to contribute to the refugee situation, I was looking for a birthday gift to send to someone of Latvian descent who was born in one of the World War II displaced person camps in Germany. I had sent her a wool scarf from a fancy store the previous year but decided to do something different. I went the the website of the International Rescue Committee, the organization where I once did volunteer work, and bought a refugee rescue giftWarmth Through the Winter—in her name. And vowed that I would do something similar for everyone else, whether or not they cared about the current crisis. And would ask that they do the same for me.

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Warmth Through the Winter. (Source: International Rescue Committee)

Me, As Mammal

Zeke, my first non-human mammal friend. (Photo: Duncan R. Munro)

There was a time when I wondered whether something was wrong with me. I was often uncomfortable being called “Latvian,” for one. “C’mon,” I countered, having spent most of my formative years in the Midwest, “I was little more than one month old when I was bundled off to Austria.” “Quite so,” anyone who heard that could respond. “But you don’t identify much with Austrians or Americans, either.”

Truth be told, I have tried to wriggle out of any show of group commitment more fervent than a perfunctory reciting of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Such as all that stuff that I had to say as a self-conscious 16-year-old at the far-too-public rite of Lutheran confirmation. Or all that stuff that I had to scream in support of high school and college athletic organizations. My lack of zeal for my undergraduate football team was particularly perplexing since it was a Big Ten powerhouse. That this occurred in the Sixties, when the U of M was the “Hotbed of Liberalism,” did not help, either. I shrank from affirmations at SDS meetings. While markedly different, they seemed similarly coercive.

I came to claim that the best I could do was accept membership in the human race or, more accurately, the Homo sapiens species. But even that rubbed me the wrong way once it struck me how disturbingly the Bible, which forms the basis of my Judeo-Christian culture, starts out:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. [Italics mine.]

Honestly, I did not want my name associated with any group that advocated that degree of exceptionalism and imperialism. So I settled for seeing myself as a mere speck in a vast Universe, both the known and the unknown one. That worked when considering major issues such as Life and Death but did little for me on a day-to-day basis.

I saw no viable solution until I reached middle age, which is when I was grown up enough to acknowledge that I was once and probably always will be a displaced person. I started writing about that, then volunteered my services to the Baltimore branch of the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle a range of refugees in my area. And, once the refugee situation reached crisis proportions comparable only to what my family and I experienced after World War II,  I wrote about my debt to today’s refugees, which was viewed by thousands and, hopefully, spurred some to action. I even sided with displaced plants and took on both those nativists who wage war on non-native vegetation and those who do so on non-native people.

Still, it seemed sad to only be able to identify with people and plants that do not belong. Which got me thinking about Zeke. Never was a sentient being more confident of his place in the world. And more capable of committing to those beyond his own species, Canis lupus. He gave us Homo sapiens licks and wags and cheerfully tolerated all those strange training regimens that we foisted on him. His exceptions, embarrassingly, revolved around the darker-skinned members of my then husband’s British football team. But Zeke made it clear that this was only his anomaly detector at work by also barking furiously whenever the right-side-up version of me turned upside-down during yoga poses. And then showed regret to certain Jamaican gentlemen by returning their broad smiles as soon as he understood that they meant him no harm. Something that some humans cannot do.

He also, interestingly, eschewed the gender stereotypes that so many humans get hung up on. While being the manliest of males—60 pounds of pure muscle and much-admired by the ladies—he felt free to show his feminine side. Even as a raucous adolescent, he became maternal when visiting the two-year-old next door. Even obeying his orders. Even when there were hot dogs involved. All little Michael had to do was say, “Sit,” then, “No, Zeke, no.” He was similarly sensitive to me. While always showing how much he missed me when I returned from work, he then sat back and assessed the situation. And altered his behavior substantially depending on whether I was seriously stressed by the impossible search for a parking space near our Back Bay apartment, preoccupied with the report that I had to complete by the morning or relieved that it was Friday and ready for fun.

Memory of this was his way of reaffirming for me from wherever he is now that we are both mammals. And saying if I accepted that, I could not only become a part something more sympatico than how my own species sometimes seems but also escape its sexist connotations. Instead of identifying as a HOMO sapien or a huMAN or a member of MANkind, I could proudly proclaim that I belonged to a clade characterized by mammary glands. Which, incidentally, both males and females possess. As Randy Laist well knew when he wrote “Why I Identify as Mammal” for The New York Times. Of course, that puts Laist and me in a clade with rodentssloths and sheep. But since we are in the silly season known as the presidential election in the States, I am sure that we are no worse off than if we had simply stuck to humans.

Now, know that this might not work for you. Wesley J. Smith, after all,  wrote a spirited rebuttal, pointing out that Laist—”of course!“—was an English professor, and published it in—of course!—the National Review. But then try to enlarge your view in some other way. If you see yourself as a Millennial, try seeing yourself as a mortal so as not to insulate yourself from people who are closer to Death’s door. If you see yourself as a Republican, try seeing yourself as a US citizen so as not to be in a position to have to vote for someone who is repugnant to you come November. And, my dear native Latvians, try seeing yourselves as members of the United Nations, not just as NATO members, which is currently more convenient. And If you see yourself as a Christian, try seeing yourself as simply spiritual. Or a principled person. So as not to set yourself against Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world. Or agnostics, another rapidly growing group.

And if you have done all that and more, give identifying as mammal another go. Not so that you feel compelled to stop the slaughter of your fellow mammals to fill your stomach, which makes some good come of our inevitable demise, but so as to limit the torture that has become pervasive on factory farms. And then, when you are really ready, expand your identity further so that you become part of the planet, then the Universe. Because that, ultimately, is what you are.

No Big Deal

President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga hosts a summit in Rīga. (Source: NATO)

Little Latvia has something to teach the great United States of America about presidential politics. Namely, that electing a woman as president is no big deal. It was not back in 1999, when Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became the first female president, and it was not in 2014, when Laimdota Straujuma became the first female prime minister. (Latvia has a parliamentary system, so there is a head of state and a head of government.) Though born in Latvia, I had lived decades in the States by the time both of these events occurred. But I knew enough about both countries to be able to spot two reasons why this might be so: (1) the gender gap was not quite as large in Latvia and (2) the prevailing attitude among Latvians the world over was that women could do whatever men did. And could succeed—or fail—to the same degree.

The gender gap can be measured objectively. The Global Gender Gap Report, for instance, is based on data collected from 130 countries, or over 93 percent of the world’s population, in four broad areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. With no country obtaining anywhere near the combined score needed to indicate complete women’s equality (1.0), the most recent findings (2014) show that Iceland comes the closest (0.8594). And that Latvia (0.7691) fares a bit better than the States (0.7463). Curious to see what that says about political outcomes, I linked the scores to a list of women world leaders. Apart from President Borjana Krišto of Bosnia Herzegovina and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, for whom data were not available, all the women came from nations scoring above 0.6:

0.8594  Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland
0.8453  Prime Minister Mari Johanna Kiviniemi, Finland
0.8453  President Tarja Halonen, Finland
0.7850  President Mary McAleese, Ireland
0.7798  President Doris Leuthard, Switzerland
0.7780  Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany
0.7409  Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia
0.7208  President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania
0.7165  President Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica
0.7154  Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Trinidad Tobago
0.7075  Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Croatia
0.6974  President Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan
0.6973  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh
0.6806  Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, Slovakia
0.6455  President Pratibha Patil, India

Attitudes are harder to quantify. But I am fairly certain that I was not unique among Latvians everywhere in feeling empowered as a female from my very first days. This empowerment came from my maternal grandmother, who was responsible for my day-to-day care. Born in 1879, she was able to figure out how to support her remaining family after her husband was executed by Russian revolutionaries and she had to return to Rīga, pregnant with her second child, accompanied by my mother, who was only a toddler, and bags of worthless rubles: she set up her own sausage stand and, later, turned a seaside resort into a resounding success. It come from my mother, who worked outside the home all her adult life. Born in the 1915, she managed to land a good job after we fled to Austria to escape the invading Red Army and then assumed the role of sole breadwinner when my father, after falling the equivalent of several stories at the hydroelectric plant where he had found work, decided that it might be best to study law in Innsbruck instead. And it came from my father, as well. He grew up with two accomplished sisters on a farm Cēsis and was equally proud of the one who became a farmer’s wife and the one who became a dentist. The latter, similar to what my mother did in Austria, became the primary provider not long after she and her husband fled to England. While she was able to establish her own practice in London, her husband, who had served as a judge in Latvia, could only find factory work. Which was not only unsuitable but also became a tax liability. So he quit to manage her practice. And both were fine with that.

I am constantly amazed by how many native-born American women my own age do not feel similarly empowered by their predecessors. However, I am truly heartened by what I hear from those born several decades later. For whatever reason, they have managed to instill the No-Big-Deal attitude in this electoral cycle. While most want to see a female president soon, they are also unwilling to say that it has to occur this particular year and be this particular front-runner. Even—or perhaps particularly—many feminists. So, according to a New York Times piece, some 87 percent of likely primary voters aged 18 to 29 say that they would vote for Bernie Sanders compared with only 13 percent for Hillary Clinton.  As a woman quoted in an LA Times piece says, “Feminists choosing her just because she is a woman is the opposite of what feminism means. A ‘person’ should be elected by their records, not their gender.” So, there seems to be substantial progress.

It is important for the electorate to reach the point where gender no longer takes center stage. Not only so that more women are willing to run for office, confident that they had a fighting chance, but also that this could elevate the level of political discourse. As John Cassidy wrote in a piece in The New Yorker, “One of Hillary Clinton’s problems is that her campaign is largely about her. Sanders, on the other hand, seeks to inspire people with an uplifting theme.” And Clinton has claimed that this is so because she is a woman. If we were at the point where it was not always about gender, Clinton might show us what a remarkable leader she could be. On the other hand, very few have matched the “uplifting theme” marking President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. And racial inequality in the States is clearly greater than gender inequality. And many of the world leaders listed above had to contend with greater gender inequality than either Latvians or Americans endured. So maybe the best that Clinton can do is to make the presidential bid about herself. But then, at least, we would know.

Eighteen women world leaders. (Source: TEDwomen)
Eighteen women world leaders. (Source: TEDwomen)